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a little bit goes a long way

I’m in the middle of outlining a romance novel that has a lot of potential endings — and several of those possible ending are polyamorous in nature. It’s making me realize one of the weird ways fiction doesn’t necessarily mirror reality.

Romance fiction tends to be, largely, monosexual — one person meets one person, they fall in love, happily ever after (HEA). On some rare occasions, though — and this appears in both original romance novels and in romantic fanfiction — you get a polyamorous solution to everyone’s will-they-won’t-they.

When an author chooses the polyamorous option, they’re trying to demonstrate how it works for an audience that may not necessarily have any experience of it in real life. And in fiction, it looks great. There’s support, there’s a lot of love, there’s frequently really inventive sex scenes. Two things I’ve noticed, though:

  • The kind of poly that tends to show up as the HEA is polyfidelity, or maybe “kitchen-table poly“. In polyfidelity, everyone’s in a relationship with everyone else, like a closed triangle (or whatever shape the polycule is). In kitchen-table poly, everyone might not be in a relationship with everyone else, but they’re all involved in one another’s lives to the degree that they could sit around the kitchen table in their pajamas.
  • You don’t see a lot of parallel or solo poly — at least, not being practiced by the main character. In parallel poly, multiple relationships are being maintained separately; in solo, the poly person maintains multiple relationships but is “settling down” with no one person in particular.

I don’t think kitchen-table or polyfidelity or any of those big group styles of poly are the default of poly — and I don’t think they’re necessarily better than parallel or solo poly, just because we see it in fiction more often. Rather, I think that it’s difficult to write parallel or solo poly sympathetically, in the manner that we’re used to writing about mono relationships.

Writing (for me) is all about having a toolbox of ideas and hacks and methods to convey particular ideas, tools that allow me to translate the messy story in my head to something that looks relatively similar in a complete stranger’s head. If I try to convey one character’s love and desire for multiple other characters, and those characters are all separate or otherwise don’t interact… that sort of writing exists, but generally it’s used to denote a cheater. Even if the author explicitly states that that’s not the case, the author has to contend with their reading audience’s years’ worth of experience decoding and interpreting monosexual fiction — and their own experience writing it. It’s just… easier to write polyamory as if it’s just very complex monogamy.

The truth is, though, that it’s a different bird. And that can land some readers in trouble, particularly those who use fiction to game-test ideas in a sandbox before playing them in the real world. If they’re presented with a type of relationship that looks like it solves their own problems, and then don’t do any research outside of fiction… well, let us consider the example of 50 Shades of Grey and BDSM, and move on from there.

So in working on the ending to my romance, I’m stuck trying to come up with the HEA while at the same time maintaining what I’d like to think is reality for a large subset of the polyamorous community (and shouldn’t they get to see themselves in fiction too?). It’s frustrating work — but, I suppose, that’s why authors do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to crack the code.

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the writing life (and the lies we wish were true)

I’ve recently joined one of those movie theatre loyalty programs, where you get to watch multiple movies over the course of a week for the cost of essentially two movies a month (which I would do anyway, so this works well for me). Because of it, I end up seeing a lot of films I wouldn’t otherwise, which is useful to expand my basic collection of storylines.

Recently I saw both Knives Out (a cozy murder mystery comedy with attractive sweaters) and Ford v Ferrari (a historical bio-pic Fast and Furious with more engineering porn). I enjoyed both very much, though only Knives Out had really been on my radar. But getting the opportunity to see both let me make some connections I don’t think I would’ve otherwise– specifically, how the two movies frame owning one’s own business.

Without going into spoilers, Knives Out features the patriarch of a family that has become vastly wealthy because he is a best-selling mystery writer. His millions allow for a giant weird mansion and supporting two generations of wastrel children — all without (SOMEHOW) film, audio, or any other adaptations of his work. This is a depressingly popular trope — when I was a kid, I used to think very dark thoughts about anything that depicted writers as effete artists wandering around sipping martinis in their Manhattan penthouses while lushly dropping marabou feathers from under layer after layer of silk robes.

“Maryanne!” they’d faintly screech, staring at the distance, cradling their own elbow while sipping an artisanally cheap whiskey. “Fetch the typewriter.” They’d take a drag from their cigarette. (There’s a cigarette now.) “And call Mr. Spielberg.” Exhale. “I’m ready to talk.”

Blargh.

In contrast, Ford v Ferrari features not one but two small car-related businesses — one of which is even fairly successful, all things considered — and both are constantly cutting corners with sales, flirting with bankruptcy, and willing to put up with a considerable amount of bullshit to make ends meet. This I’m familiar with– talk to any working writer (or read Kameron Hurley’s breakdowns of what a successful writing life actually pays, or listen to piles of excellent Ditch Digger podcast episodes) and it’s basically the same scenario. There are very few (very few) authors who can survive without a regular day job and/or a support network that subsidizes their work. There are several terrible true-life stories of authors who try to have the marabou feather life and discover that it is wildly impossible.

And yet, Knives Out showcases that trope again, and the regular public nod sagely and take it as a given.

The closest I’ve come to figuring out the difference here is a double-punch of:

(1) Writing is still a Vast Mystery, unlike blue-collar and mundane car repair businesses. There are a sufficient number of people who either know or are blue-collar workers that it’s not a real question how and where money goes. Cash and accrual businesses, with hourly/shift work, are basically the options at play — as opposed to the labyrinthine nonsense of incremental portions of leased rights across multiple companies and languages, etc etc, that makes up a typical writing career.

(2) Writing produces Art, which is a luxury, and luxuries cost money, and therefore… artists are rich? (This goes back to the Mystery aspect of how money works in publishing.) Whereas cars are, for many, a basic life necessity. Someone’s getting rich, but it’s probably Companies run by rotund men in glass-windowed offices, laughing over stock reports while burning Kobe steaks to light their bespoke cigarillos. In fact, it would seem that the popular trope of the martini-drinking artist frames writers as essentially being on par with capitalist fat cats.

I don’t have a particular solution to this, aside from more writers accurately portraying themselves in fiction (which is also my solution for accurate robots, accurate children, and accurate dark gods of New Hampshire). But it’s still very fascinating to see the exact same lifestyle appear at the exact same time in the exact same media– and have those expressed in their stories and to their audiences completely differently.

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mirabilis in miniature

The first story my parents remember me writing (or starting, at any rate) was titled THE STORM. Its opening line? “It was a beautiful day at the beach.”

The first story I remember writing was in first or second grade, shortly after I’d had a teary tantrum over something, and I proceeded to write a story about a crying witch. My parents lent me their computer to do so, which was magnanimous considering the fuss I remember putting up just shortly beforehand. I can still remember the final scene, though — I don’t remember how I wrote it, but I remember imagining what I wanted, and the urge to get it down right.

I myself have children now, and they’ll sidle up next to me and ask if they can “work” on my laptop, writing their own stories. My youngest gets frustrated at how slow her typing is, but when she dictates to me, her story about the Power Sisters joining the Teen Titans is a charming and imaginative one.

My oldest, on the other hand, has crept from her bed at night and said, wide-eyed and excited, that she has a story she wants to write. On the one hand, I could send her back to bed– but I know what it’s like to feel the urge to create, and the sweeping joy of a finished work. So the night that this happened, I handed over my laptop, and let her peck out letters of a ghost story, one hand to her mouth as she smiled, delighted, at her own words.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except– it can be rare, I think, to watch someone else’s muse strike, and watch their brains light up and their voice get excited and their hands move in rhythm to their minds. We should encourage it when it happens, and be respectful of the tiny miracle we’ve been allowed to witness.

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Writing without engagement (or: livejournal was really great, right?)

For the last several years, I’ve engaged in micro-blogging: Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr. All of these create an “active” online presence that doesn’t have to actually create anything new (though many do) — one can instead just like, or reblog, or provide a two-word comment, and be considered alive and well.

The other day I went trawling through my old and now very much defunct livejournal, looking for a particular essay I’d written describing the lead up to the “Sicilian Vespers“. And what with one thing and another, I ended up rereading huge swathes of posts, going back years. It was… strange. I had posts about my daily life; posts about my thoughts and feelings; posts with bad jokes; posts where I excitedly shared something I’d learned, or commented on the happenings of the world, or just trolled my friends at length. It was a very different sort of engagement than I have with my current apps and platforms — instead of sharing what’s clever, or attempting to dip into meme status, I just… wrote what I wanted to write. A diary with an acknowledged open audience.

So I might just go ahead and start writing like that again– because why not? It’ll either be read or it won’t, but I will have written it, and I will be able to read it in the future, and shouldn’t that be enough? The act of writing is an exponential exercise — every word becomes ten more at some near-distant point. And even if it didn’t… there’s value in writing for oneself. Of looking inside and writing what one sees without first transmogrifying it into fiction. Of writing something meant to be experienced separate from the “engagement” of social media.

(And also I want another venue to talk about the Sicilian Vespers without having to count my characters or use shitpost styling to go viral. It’s a wild bit of history. Fuck ~engaging~ my audience.)